‘I Might Have Been Stuck In Calais’: Lord Dubs On Being A Child Refugee In 2020
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‘I Might Have Been Stuck In Calais’: Lord Dubs On Being A Child Refugee In 2020

By Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, Journalist 29 Oct 2020
Discrimination, Equality, Immigration, Institutions, Justice, Race, Religion

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“I don’t know if I’d have been willing to take a chance on the back of a lorry or a dinghy,” said Lord Alf Dubs, on whether he feels he would be welcomed if he had made his journey to Britain as a child refugee today.

“I think once I’d got here I might have been welcome. But I think getting here might have been quite a difficult process,” he added. “I might have been stuck in Calais.”

Born in Prague in 1932, Dubs came to the UK as part of the the 1939 Kindertransport rescue effort which brought around 10,000 children to safety amid the atrocities of the Holocaust.

He is now a Labour peer in the House of Lords, one who campaigns vocally for the rights of child refugees to be protected following Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Dubs’ comments conjure up the image of his remarkable life story being mirrored again in decades time, but with the lead protagonist instead played by one of the hundreds of children currently stranded in northern France’s makeshift refugee camps.

Charities recorded more than 250 unaccompanied children, some as young as 11, sleeping rough in Calais in August this year. Many of the people staying there are seeking sanctuary in the UK – or are hoping to reunite with family members – after escaping war, persecution, insecurity or poverty in their home countries

 

But Dubs, and other refugee and asylum experts, have long argued that there is a lack of safe and legal pathways for these people to try to claim asylum or be considered for family reunification in UK.

This lack of safe routes and the desperate conditions in the camps are said to be contributing factors to the growing numbers of people attempting the treacherous journey across the English Channel by small boat.

“Many people fleeing war and persecution feel forced to put their lives into the hands of criminal smugglers because there are no safe and legal routes to claim asylum in the UK,” Stephen Hale, the chief executive of Refugee Action, told the Guardian in May.

“It’s completely understandable why people are resorting to making the perilous journey across the channel,” added Fizza Qureshi, the co-chief executive of Migrants’ Rights Network. “They’re desperate and want to be with their loved ones.”

On Tuesday, a family of four died while attempting to cross the Channel – including a nine-year-old girl and five-year-old boy.

 

Lord Alf Dubs, Credit: OSCE Parliamentary Assembly

Instead of setting up more safe and legal routes, the Home Office has sought to reduce the number of crossings by trying to prevent vessels leaving in the first place, intercepting boats, and deporting those who succeed in reaching the UK’s shores.

Earlier this month, the government also stripped protections for lone child refugees from its flagship immigration legislation that will end EU freedom-of-movement rules in the UK.

MPs voted 327 votes to 264 to remove an amendment, made by peers under Dubs’ leadership, which would have required the government to ensure unaccompanied children in the EU continue to be relocated with close relatives in the UK.

“So far I’m disappointed but not surprised,” said Dubs, speaking after the vote.

Asked what happens next, he added: “I suppose there is a small hope that the amendment will pass in the Commons but frankly I doubt it.”

“The Lords reaffirmed its support for my amendment, which will now have to be reconsidered by the Commons.

“This may well be the last opportunity to safeguard the rights of unaccompanied child refugees after December 31.”

During the course of an hour-long video interview with EachOther, Dubs expressed his deep desire to “make [Britain] better for everybody”.

Reacting to reports of leaked plans the UK government is considering building offshore holding centres for asylum seekers, he said: “It makes us seem to be a very nasty and mean little country … I thought we were better than that.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel, Credit: Number 10

Dubs’ life story is an extraordinary one. After arriving in the UK as a child, he went to school in Stockport before studying at the London School of Economics.

He eventually entered politics, serving as Labour’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland from 1997 – 1999, after becoming a life peer at the House of Lords in 1994.

Over his career, Dubs has been a chair of the human rights group Liberty, a trustee of Action Aid, and is a patron of Humanists UK and treasurer of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.

In 2016, he masterminded a change in the law that required the government to give sanctuary to an unspecified number of child refugees from Europe.

The government capped the scheme at 480 children, although there was no legal requirement to do this. The cap has been met so the scheme has in effect ended. However, the legislation remains open.

EachOther has put its big questions to Dubs in an interview which covers everything from his experiences as a former child refugee, to his assessment of the government’s asylum and migration policies and his concerns about the rise of the far-right.

Watch our video interview or read the full story below. 

Describe what you do in 15 words or less?

I’m a Labour member of the House of Lords and, in the last few years, I’ve been campaigning a great deal for child refugees.

Is there anything you know now which you wish you’d known when you arrived here?

I was six when I arrived in the UK. I’ve had a lifetime of learning things. All in all, I was very lucky – though there were some bad moments.

The only thing is, I held back on things because I felt that, as a refugee who came here at the age of six, maybe there were certain doors that wouldn’t be open to me.

I held back on things because I felt that, as a refugee who came here at the age of six, maybe there were certain doors that wouldn’t be open to me.

– Lord Alf Dubs

After persuasion by friends of mine, I was told just to go ahead and talk about going into politics, for example. So I think probably I held back a bit more than I should have done.

I was a bit too conscious of being a refugee, and thought: “what chance would I have?” And I think that was wrong. I think it was better to go ahead, and have a go at things.

How has being a child refugee shaped your worldview?

Getting to know about the Holocaust and members of the family who didn’t survive and so on, I suppose that must have had an effect.

I mean, on the other hand, I decided in my early teens that my future was here. I couldn’t spend all my time thinking back to a past, which I only remember vaguely. I felt that I had to look forward and identify totally with this country – which I think was helpful.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned during your time as a Lord?

I was in the Commons before, so I brought my House of Commons experience with me into the Lords.

What’s the most important lesson I’ve learned?

I think, first of all, there’s no point in being there unless one feels one can make a difference. Just talking for the sake of it is no good.

I think one should have clear objectives, and one should try and develop an area of expertise that one gets listened to.

I think the other thing is, one has to speak with authority and sincerity – a phoney sticks out a mile.

Lord Alf Dubs, Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What would you say you’re most proud of?

Well, again, that’s quite difficult. I’m still alive – that’s not bad.

I hope when I was a minister in Northern Ireland I made some small contribution to the peace process. And, more recently, I hope by campaigning on behalf of child refugees I’ve enabled at least some child refugees to find safety in this country with access to decent lives.

Is there anything you’d like to achieve which you haven’t yet?

I would like to feel we could move, with these policies for refugees, in a more humane and sensible direction.

I would like to feel we could move, with these policies for refugees, in a more humane and sensible direction.

Lord Alf Dubs

 

If you could immediately put right one injustice in the UK right now, what would it be? And why?

Refugees. I’d like to feel we can … adopt a more humanitarian approach to child refugees, and bring some of them over here quickly to join their families, whether they’re coming from Calais or whether they’re coming from the big islands.

The other injustice, I think, is homelessness.

We’ve put up some of the rough sleepers in hotels because of the pandemic. I would like to see that we ensure we don’t have any people sleeping in the street. So that they at least have somewhere they have a bed and somewhere they can call a home.

I’d like to tackle racism in our society, too. It’s better to have an agenda of things.

Which is the most important human right?

I suppose the right to life is the most important one, because people have fled from other countries because their life is threatened by either wars or persecution.

But all the human rights are important, we should work on all of them.

"The Jungle" in Calais, Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Do you have any ideas about how to heal divisions in society right now?

Oh, that’s an enormous question.

I think we have to tackle injustice and discrimination.

I think the Black Lives Matter campaign was a very important one. But I think we’ve got to build on it. Campaigning and demonstrating is one thing. But we’ve actually got to change hearts and minds.

I just think it’s terrible that the people working in social care, and social care workers, are treated so badly in terms of income: poor, low wages, and so on.

I think we have to respect our public services more – we have to respect people who give everything either in social care or in the health service.

I’d like to see a more equal society, where we have better values than we have at the moment. People are moving away from good values – we are seeing it both in the US and as we sit here in the UK. These values matter, and racism is so appalling … such a blight on any country where it happens.

I’d like to see a more equal society, where we have better values than we have at the moment.

Lord Alf Dubs

We’ve got to do everything we can to tackle racism, and to ensure that equality means equality for everybody. And for people who just arrived, we should give them a sense of self worth and self respect by the government.

What’s your assessment of the current state of the UK’s refugee system?

Well, I think unfortunately, refugees, as in other parts of Europe, have become a political football.

I think it’s shabbier in some continental countries where the extreme right-wing parties are really exploiting the refugee situation for their own ends.

I think we have to look at refugees as human beings who happen, by accident of history, to have found themselves in war zones, and victims of persecution. And indeed, in the future, victims of climate change as well.

We have to look at refugees as being human beings who happen, by accident of history, to have found themselves in war zones, and victims of persecution.

Lord Alf Dubs

 

Do you think the UK is forgetting its history of welcoming refugees?

Well, I think it’s mixed.

When I came on the Kindertransport, Britain took 10,000 children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. That was generous because other countries didn’t.

On the other hand, there were some quite serious debates on it in the House of Commons at the time.

In the immediate post-war period, I think attitudes began to change. I think we were welcoming to the Hungarian refugees. There were some arguments over East African Asian refugees, but on the whole it was okay. We had some Vietnamese boat people. And then, gradually, it became more and more politicised again.

During the referendum, it got very shabby indeed. I think it was quite shocking how “take back control” really became “keep them out”.

Boris Johnson was saying, if Britain doesn’t leave the EU, there’s going to be 80 million Turks arriving the next day – which was a total lie, because Turkey wasn’t going to get in the EU anyway.

So I think that generated fear, it generated hostility.  I think it was very, very shabby, and we’re trying to recover from that now.

Lord Alf Dubs, Credit: Justin Thomas

Do you think you’d have been welcomed as a child refugee today?

Well, it’s a bit mixed. I think I’d have had a job getting here, wherever I was coming from.

I think once I’d got here I might have been welcome. But I think getting here might have been quite a difficult process.

I might have been stuck in Calais – I don’t know if I’d have been willing to take a chance on the back of a lorry or a dinghy.

I might have been stuck in Calais – I don’t know if I’d have been willing to take a chance on the back of a lorry or a dinghy.

Lord Alf Dubs

 

Are you concerned about the rise of far-right groups like Britain First?

I think it is absolutely essential that we don’t let the far-right get a toehold. There’s some elements of this government that have policies that are pretty far-right anyway, but I think it’s essential we don’t allow fascist parties to get a foothold in this country and to exploit the migration and refugee issue.

And I think we have to do that by explaining to people why we’re doing what we’re doing. By explaining to people what happened, what’s happened to refugees, what they suffered from.

When I say look at Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who was found drowned on the Mediterranean beach – it’s deeply, deeply shocking.

Separately, I was talking to a Syrian boy who told me that he’d seen his father blown up in front of him by a bomb.

Whether it is the hostility that young black [British] men face in the streets of London, or to the refugees who come here … this is all part of a very nasty hostility – we’ve got to tackle it.

What is your view on the revelations about the government considering offshore detention centres for refugees?

I think that’s a pretty depressing picture.

I think that idea of sending people to Ascension [Island] – or, as I see in the Guardian this morning [October 1],  Moldova – for heaven’s sake, what’s all this? Or onto ships in the Channel? I don’t think this is any way to treat human beings.

I think what we need is a proper process for identifying whether they do have a claim to refugee status, fleeing from war, fear of death, fear of persecution, and those that have a claim to the refugee status, we say: right, that’s it – you qualify.

And then for others, we have to see what other safe routes can be given to people to migrate to this country, even if they’re not refugees.

They won’t all be accepted, we can’t take everybody. But I think we should say to other European countries: “We’ll take our share of responsibility for people along with you, even if we’re not in the EU.”

I think Priti Patel’s policy is pretty negative – Ascension Island in South Atlantic – I mean, for heaven’s sake, what are we supposed to do there?

What is she going to do? Ship off Syrians or Afghans who’ve got to Calais or got to Britain? We simply send them over? It’s completely inhumane. It’s nonsense. And then they’re stuck there? You know, it’s no policy for the self-respecting country that we should be. It’s no way forward.

A statue commemorating the Kindertransport. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How concerned are you about the rise of antisemitism in contemporary society?

I think it is shocking that, 70 years after the camps were liberated, we’re still having to discuss antisemitism. I’m shocked that we need your question – your question is a good question, and is necessary. But I’m shocked by that.

It is shocking that, 70 years after the camps were liberated, we’re still having to discuss antisemitism.

Lord Alf Dubs

I think it’s a very depressing commentary that we have learnt so little; we still have the memories of these camps being liberated and seeing human corpses – Belsen, Auschwitz, and so on.

And we have to be on the alert for any form of racism, be it racism against Black people, against Asian people, or racism against Jews – and any weakening panders to the racists.

After all, antisemitism in Nazi Germany started off with words and then escalated and escalated. Then it led to the gas chambers. We have to be very careful that we don’t allow it to even get a hold in our societies.

We’ve seen what’s happened in France. We’ve seen antisemitic evidence here. We’ve seen it elsewhere in the States. And I think we have to be absolutely on guard that we don’t let any of these things to take hold.

Do you think people are forgetting the horrors of the Holocaust?

I think human memories are short. It’s very easy to forget. You see, I’m old enough to know members of my family who died in Auschwitz – and other people who either died in the camps, or managed to survive if they made it to the end of the Second World War. But frankly, it’s too easy to forget.

I’m old enough to know members of my family who died in Auschwitz – and other people who either died in the camps, or managed to survive if they made it to the end of the Second World War. But frankly, it’s too easy to forget.

Lord Alf Dubs

The Holocaust Education Trust does a very good job in taking school parties to Auschwitz so that they can remember. They have school students who become ambassadors and talk about it. I’ve met some of them – it’s a great initiative. Well done to the Holocaust Education Trust, and the Holocaust Memorial Trust – but it’s too easy to forget.

I think we have to make sure that these horrible things are kept in people’s memories – as are more recent horrible things that happened in Rwanda and elsewhere; we’ve got to see them as part of the same blight on humanity that’s happened with the Holocaust. And terrible things are happening to people in other parts of the world as well as more recently.

It’s very important that, at school, we teach children this. That we make sure they’re aware of it, that they see it as part of their history, albeit a generation or so back.

It’s too easy to forget – it’s too easy. Memories are short, people move on.

Note: Responses lightly edited for clarity.